Education in marketing and public relations has changed drastically in the past 20 years. A few decades ago, there was no such thing as a major in public relations at most colleges and universities. Now, the education field is working on developing interactive media masters programs. In the 1980s, marketing in many places was still known as "distributive education." Bring up distributive education in a modern high school, and you'll get a bunch of blank looks.
The point is that it is important for communicators to understand certain principles on how our industry communicates. One of the people who helped start that conversation in the United States was a gentleman called Edward Bernays.
Today we want to talk about his views on propaganda and impropaganda.
As it was originally known, propaganda was defined as one-way communication, the sender to the receiver, that had the sole intent to persuade the receiver to the opinion of the sender. It had the goal of stimulating action that would benefit the sender. In the U.S., we saw the war efforts for WWI and WWII using this kind of propaganda technique.
This, too, works when the receiver can access very little information on their own, or simply chooses not to do any due diligence.
With this definition, propaganda itself isn't necessarily a bad thing. Yes, Bernays went even further, saying the propaganda was necessary for democracy to thrive.
On the other hand, impropaganda is the seedy messaging and gross handling of the truth that we are all accustomed to associating with "propaganda." Impropaganda distorts or hides the truth and lies to the receiver in the attempt to bring the receiver to its side, no matter the costs. We see this now between the Ukrainian and Russian sides, we saw it in WWII over in Germany; the machine of mistruths can be very damaging.
Propaganda and impropaganda are extremely similar. The only difference is that the latter involves lies and malicious intent.
So is propaganda evil? If we look closely at the definitions and the intent, the answer is no. Yes, the hard truth — the truth that these new-age "change agents" fail to tell — is that one-way, one-idea communication can still be very effective when it is in the best interest of the receiver. When we examine it, one could categorize internal communication teams as propagandists using messaging and marketing collateral to build a cohesive internal structure. How is that not propaganda? Any kind of training that requires groups to be on the same page, and to ignore the masses outside their group, could also fall under this definition. But that's not a bad thing.
Impropaganda, on the other hand, is a bad idea. Those who willingly look to deceive their audience are abusing the power of influence we as communicators are privileged to have.
Hope this gets you thinking. Thank you for reading.
Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.
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